12 Can’t Miss National Parks and Monuments in Arizona

A guide to the best, the famous, and the lesser-known national parks and monuments in the Grand Canyon State.

Monument Valley, Arizona

Monument Valley is just one of a dozen stunning parks and monuments in Arizona.

Photo by Shutterstock

Arizona’s nickname is the Grand Canyon State, and that namesake national park draws almost 5 million visitors a year and ranks as one of the most popular in the country. But the canyon is only one of many natural wonders in this Southwest state. In fact, with its protected petrified forests, stunning rock formations, volcanic cinder cones, saguaro-studded deserts, and Anasazi cliff dwellings, Arizona is a spectacularly diverse place to visit—especially by road trip.

So, how many national parks are there in Arizona? There are 24 sites—encompassing national monuments like Chiricahua and Casa Grande Ruins, national memorials, national historic sites, and of course, three national parks: Saguaro, Petrified Forest, and Grand Canyon. No other state in the country can boast as many national parks and monuments. Here’s a guide to 12 of Arizona’s best national parks, both the world-famous and those not yet discovered by the masses.

The Colorado River passing through the Grand Canyon

It took millions of years for the Colorado to wear down the surrounding landscape and create the Grand Canyon.

Photo by Shutterstock

Grand Canyon National Park

  • Why go: Are you kidding?
  • Nearest city to Grand Canyon National Park: Phoenix or Flagstaff, Arizona, or Las Vegas, Nevada
  • Where to stay when visiting Grand Canyon National Park: El Tovar Hotel at the South Rim is considered the crown jewel of the National Park lodges.

At 277 miles long, the Grand Canyon lives up to its name; it’s the biggest canyon in the United States and one of the largest in the world. Numbers don’t do the place justice—its sheer size is awe inspiring, but it’s also a stunning record of time. Over millions of years, the Colorado River sliced the landscape into sheer rock walls, revealing many layered colors, each marking a different geologic era. Whether you hike a historic trail like Bright Angel, Hermit, or Kaibab, or enjoy a sunset or sunrise from the rim, you feel like you’re seeing deep into the secrets of the Earth.

Wildlife is an often unsung highlight of a visit to Grand Canyon National Park. From bighorn sheep to little brown bats, the canyon is home to thousands of species, many of which are endemic to this part of northern Arizona or extremely rare. It is also a great place to spot California condors. Once dangerously close to extinction, the huge birds are now making a gradual comeback with the help of careful wildlife management. In 2018, the Grand Canyon was home to six nesting pairs and in 2022, the total world condor population was 561. Watch them soar overhead at Yavapai and Yaki points and Lookout Studio on the South Rim.

Guided tours are offered in collaboration between the Grand Canyon Conservancy Field Institute and Grand Canyon National Park with focuses spanning outdoor photography, guided hikes along the South and North Rims where you can learn about Native American history (including the Apache people who traveled through during the summer and fall when berries were plentiful), and biking tours, to name a few.

Portions of fossilized tree trunks at Petrified Forest National Park

At Petrified Forest National Park, the slow process of fossilization transformed ancient trees into solid quartz.

Photo by Shutterstock

Petrified Forest National Park

  • Why go: There are few places you can touch 225-million-year-old fossilized trees.
  • Nearest city to Petrified Forest National Park: Holbrook, Arizona. The nearest cities with major airports are Phoenix, Arizona, and Albuquerque, New Mexico.
  • Where to stay when visiting Petrified Forest National Park: Backcountry camping isn’t currently allowed in the park but there are private campgrounds in Navajo and Apache counties around Holbrook.

Most visitors to Petrified Forest National Park come to see the ancient tree trunks, which are preserved by minerals they absorbed after being submerged in a riverbed nearly 200 million years ago. And they’re quite a sight: Over time, the huge logs turned to solid, sparkling quartz in a rainbow of colors—the yellow of citrine, the purple of amethyst, the red-brown of jasper.

But while its name gives away Petrified Forest National Park’s main attraction, the fossils are only part of the story. This mineral-tinted landscape also boasts painted deserts and striated canyons. Don’t neglect the pastel-hued badlands of Blue Mesa, where a paved hiking trail loops around the blue-white rock. Leave time for a longer hike, such as the Jasper Forest Trail, along which you’ll quickly find yourself alone in the spectacular landscape.

Iconic, long-armed cacti at Saguaro National Park

The iconic, long-armed cacti at Saguaro National Park only grow in the Sonoran desert.

Photo by Shutterstock

Saguaro National Park

  • Why go: See the tallest and oldest saguaro cacti in the country.
  • Nearest city to Saguaro National Park: Tucson, Arizona
  • Where to stay when visiting Saguaro National Park: We like the historic Downtown Clifton in Tucson.

Recognized worldwide as a symbol of the desert, the majestic saguaro can live as long as 250 years and reach heights of 50 to 60 feet, growing so slowly that a 10-year-old plant might be just two inches high. These ancient survivors only appear naturally in the Sonoran Desert—which stretches across the southwestern United States—and thrive in their eponymous park.

Saguaro National Park is divided into two segments, one on either side of Tucson. On the west side, in the Tucson Mountain District, you’ll find the densest stands of saguaro and sweeping views from the Valley View Overlook Trail. The Rincon Mountain District, on the east side, features the park’s popular Cactus Forest Loop drive and dramatic mountain silhouettes.

One of the most popular times to visit Saguaro National Park is late spring into early summer, when the saguaro bloom with enormous waxy white flowers (the Arizona state symbol). But hikers love the park year-round. Take the Freeman Homestead Trail into a desert wash to try and spot great horned owls nesting in the cliff above. In spring, hike the Hope Camp and Ridgeview Trail for some of the park’s most vivid wildflower displays and expansive views into Box Canyon, which is sometimes studded with waterfalls after a rain.

Mummy Cave, the largest ancient Puebloan village preserved in Canyon de Chelly, is carved into the cliffside

Mummy Cave,the largest ancient Puebloan village preserved in Canyon de Chelly, is carved into the cliffside.

Photo by Shutterstock

Canyon de Chelly National Monument

  • Why go: It’s one of world’s most sacred places.
  • Nearest city to Canyon de Chelly National Monument: Holbrook, Arizona, or Gallup, New Mexico. Canyon de Chelly is within Navajo Nation.
  • Where to stay when visiting Canyon de Chelly National Monument: The Cottonwood Campground features 90 individual campsites.

First settled by the Ancestral Puebloans around 2,500 B.C.E., this labyrinth of three narrow canyons known collectively as Canyon de Chelly has sheltered Indigenous peoples for nearly 5,000 years. Canyon del Muerto, Canyon de Chelly, and Monument Canyon contain more than 800 ancient archaeological sites between them and are held deeply sacred by the Navajo and other tribes. Today, Navajo families still farm and spend time in this remote spot in the northeastern corner of Arizona.

Established as a national monument in 1931 to protect vulnerable archaeological sites and artifacts, Canyon de Chelly National Monument is unusual in that it is administered by the National Park Service (NPS) but located entirely within the Navajo tribal homeland. Visitors aren’t permitted to enter the canyon unaccompanied, but self-guided driving tours are available along the north and south rims. On these drives, you can stop at overlooks to peer down at ruins like Mummy Cave, which is carved into the sheer cliff, and Antelope House, standing at the base of the canyon walls. Don’t miss the staggeringly tall spire known as Spider Rock; it rises 830 feet from the canyon floor and, in Navajo legend, is the home of Spider Woman.

You can see many of Canyon de Chelly’s top sights from the rim roads, but you’ll get a deeper understanding of its significance on a Jeep or horseback tour with a Navajo guide. Half- and full-day tours traverse the rough river bottom and bring you close to ancient ruins, caves, and petroglyphs. If you don’t have time for a tour and can manage a vertiginous descent, the only self-guided hike, the White House Trail, zigzags 600 feet down (and back up) to the spectacular White House ruins.

Red rock buttes in Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park

Monumeny Valley Navajo Tribal Park has starred in so many Hollywood movies that its silhouette is known all over the world.

Photo by Shutterstock

Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park

  • Why go: You’ve seen it in movies, and it’s much better in person.
  • Nearest city to Monument Valley: Monument Valley is within Navajo Nation. Flagstaff, Arizona, is about a four-hour drive south.
  • Where to stay when visiting Monument Valley: The View Hotel lives up to its name.

There’s no landscape in the United States associated with the Wild West as much as Monument Valley. It’s both supremely foreign and eerily familiar. John Wayne rode out from between the park’s famous red rock buttes, the Mittens, in Stagecoach and The Searchers; Michael J. Fox—as Marty McFly—zoomed past them in a time-traveling car, the Transformers crashed through them. Thelma and Louise even ran out the final leg of their journey here.

Its cinematic fame may be why Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park welcomes many visitors from outside the United States; in the lobby of the park’s View Hotel, you’re just as likely to hear German, Italian, Japanese, Hebrew, Portuguese, Korean, Hindi, and Chinese as English.

Like Canyon de Chelly, Monument Valley is on Navajo tribal land and still inhabited by families who have lived here for centuries, but this park is entirely administered by the Navajo Nation. You’ll need to hire a Jeep or high-clearance four-wheel-drive vehicle to experience everything the park has to offer; go with a Navajo or Hopi guide to learn the cultural context for the Ancestral Puebloan cliff paintings, remote sandstone arches, and window rocks. Time your visit to experience both sunset and sunrise here and you’ll take some of the most vivid photos of your life.

At Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, you can hike over lava flow and cinder fields.

At Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, you can hike over lava flow and cinder fields.

Photo by Shutterstock

Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument

  • Why go: To hike up a volcano cinder cone and traverse a lava flow.
  • Nearest city to Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument: Flagstaff, Arizona
  • Where to stay when visiting Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument: Little America Hotel, a luxurious spot in Flagstaff.

You don’t have to go to Hawai‘i to experience the excitement of climbing a volcano. The dramatic jet-black lava flows and towering cinder cones of Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, half an hour north of Flagstaff, are the remnants of an active volcano that last erupted 1,000 years ago—not so far back in geologic time.

To see the full spectrum of volcanic activity at the monument, start off hiking the Lava’s Edge Trail through the jagged coal-colored basalt of the Bonito lava flow, then continue on to the Lava Flow Trail, which hugs the base of the volcano below cinder fields that sparkle in the sun. It’s not possible to climb to the top of Sunset Crater—it’s been closed since 1973 to protect it from erosion—but a one-mile trail up 7,250-foot Lenox Crater provides scenic views of Sunset Crater and the surrounding Bonito lava flow.

The Wupatki Pueblo, among the largest of the Colorado Plateau, consists of over 100 rooms and a ball court.

The Wupatki Pueblo is among the largest of the Colorado Plateau and consists of over 100 rooms and a ball court.

Photo by Shutterstock

Wupatki National Monument

  • Why go: The desert pueblos have been standing for almost a millennium.
  • Nearest city to Wupatki National Monument: Flagstaff, Arizona
  • Where to stay when visiting Wupatki National Monument: Perhaps Little America Hotel in Flagstaff, mentioned above.

A good companion to Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument is Wupatki National Monument, an hour’s drive north of Sedona, where you can tour the open grassland pueblos of ancient Sinaguan communities thought to have been driven away by the erupting volcano. One entrance fee covers both parks, which are only 17 miles apart and connected by a scenic drive.

Visitors can go inside the 900-year-old Wukoki Pueblo and see the intricate adobe construction that’s stood the test of time. Be sure to do the short hike up to Citadel Pueblo, which tops a steep hill and enjoys views across a lava-studded desert dotted with other ruins.

At Walnut Canyon National Monument, visitors can enter the ruins and peer through their windows.

Walnut Canyon National Monument is one of the few protected pueblo sites where visitors are still allowed to enter the ruins and peer through their windows.

Photo by Shutterstock

Walnut Canyon National Monument

  • Why go: You can wander ancient cliff dwellings high in a rock-walled canyon.
  • Nearest city to Walnut Canyon National Monument: Flagstaff, Arizona
  • Where to stay when visiting Walnut Canyon National Monument: Flagstaff KOA is set among ponderosa pines at 7,000 feet and has ample space for tents, tepees, and RVs, as well as a number of cabins.

As you descend the long steep stairway from the visitor center into Walnut Canyon National Monument, the windows and doors of ancient dwellings tucked between uneven rock layers quickly begin to come into view. These were the homes of the Sinagua people, hollowed out of the softer rock layers and walled in with simple masonry. The result was a natural fortress, reachable only by narrow trails that snaked along ledges in the cliffs.

The ruins, which date back to the 13th century, are just 10 minutes from downtown Flagstaff and are still open to the public, unlike those in many other national parks and monuments. From the foot of the stairs, follow the trail to one of the simple pueblos and step inside; through the window you can see into the neighboring homes all the way across the chasm. Look down, and hundreds of feet below is Walnut Creek, from which the residents would have sourced their water.

A second popular feature of Walnut Canyon National Monument is the Rim Trail, which offers overlooks with good views of the cliff dwellings below. The fertile lands atop the mesa were once farmed by the Sinagua; today, summertime visitors can visit a demonstration garden to taste the corn and other staples that once fed these ancient communities.

 Cliff dwellings at Montezuma Castle

While visitors are no longer allowed to access Montezuma Castle, these cliff dwellings are now some of the best-preserved on the continent.

Photo by Shutterstock

Montezuma Castle National Monument

In 1906, following the passage of the Antiquities Act, President Theodore Roosevelt created the first four national monuments. One was Montezuma Castle National Monument. It is considered one of the best-preserved cliff dwellings in North America. Carved into a cliff 1,500 feet above the ground and featuring more than 20 rooms constructed in multiple stories, it’s a remarkably sophisticated example of Sinaguan architecture.

In 1951, the park service stopped allowing visitors to mount ladders to the ruins, as erosion was degrading the delicate surfaces. Today, a short trail takes you to a viewing spot below the ruins, and museum exhibits help you imagine what life was like in this unforgiving desert landscape.

Conveniently located just off Highway 17 between Flagstaff and Phoenix, Montezuma Castle National Monument also incorporates nearby Montezuma Well. The spring-fed travertine pool is uncommon in the area, and once provided precious water for Sinaguan communities. Here, you can see humbler dwellings and the remains of an irrigation system, parts of which still irrigate local farmers’ fields. A shady trail through the oasis is a popular place for bird-watching; the NPS rangers lead guided bird walks twice a month.

Despite being isolated, Chiricahua National Monument has become a favorite destination for local hikers.

Despite its isolation, Chiricahua National Monument has become a favorite destination for local hikers.

Photo by Shutterstock

Chiricahua National Monument

  • Why go: To explore a magical landscape of sculpted rock.
  • Nearest city to Chiricahua National Monument: Tucscon, Arizona
  • Where to stay when visiting Chiricahua National Monument: Try the luxurious dude ranch Tanque Verde Ranch in Tucson.

Chiricahua National Monument’s two unofficial names, the Wonderland of Rocks and the Land of Standing Up Rocks, tell you all you need to know about why it’s become one of southern Arizona’s most popular hiking destinations. Twenty-seven million years ago, ash from a volcanic eruption compacted into rock, creating a thick layer of rhyolite that eroded and fissured into the fantastical formations. The result is a Dr. Seuss–like landscape of sculpted pinnacles, mushroom-capped hoodoos, and precariously balanced rock towers with colorful names like Grottoes, Wall Street, and Big Balanced Rock. Popular trails include Echo Canyon, the Upper and Lower Ryolite canyons, and the Heart of Rocks Loop.

Wildlife viewing is best along Bonita Creek Trail, where you might spot deer, coatimundis, and an abundance of migrating birds. In the Faraway Ranch Historic District on the east side of the park, the restored, rough-log Stafford Cabin is open for tours on weekends and provides a fascinating—if daunting—view of pioneer life in this rugged territory. Located 120 miles southeast of Tucson, the park is isolated, but many combine a visit with a tasting tour of the Willcox wine region.

Cacti and yellow wildflowers at sunset in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Near Tuscon, Arizona, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is an excellent place to see cactus, widlflowers, and birds native to the Arizonan deserts.

Photo by Shutterstock

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

  • Why go: To witness the desert’s thriving plant life.
  • Nearest city to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument: Tucson, Arizona
  • Where to stay when visiting Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument: Check out the Tanque Verde Ranch in Tucson (mentioned above) or the chic JTH Tuscon.

While you will certainly get a good look at this desert region’s plants and wildlife in other parks, the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is a particularly fine showcase of thousands of years of desert life with its massive cacti and variety of birds. The best time to visit is during the wildflower bloom in the spring, or a few weeks later in the early summertime to witness the cacti waking up from a winter nap. Alternatively, the mild winter months offer a chance to hike the many trails without the summer heat.

You can also experience this area on horseback on one of the area’s designated trails (there are additional rules if you bring your own horse). If you’re looking for a scenic drive, the 21-mile Ajo Mountain Drive is car friendly and winds through desert expanses and into the Ajo Mountains. You’ll spot ample cacti along the way, from saguaros and cholla to the iconic organ pipe cacti.

Hikers and mountain bikers—who are allowed on all trails—have plenty of options. If you’re looking to dig into the Ajo Mountains, and you love a bit of a challenge, check out the Estes Canyon/Bull Pasture Loop. This 4.4-mile trip tackles an elevation of 865 feet while bringing hikers up a steep spur trail to Bull Pasture, where ranchers used to house cattle. You’ll be rewarded with beautiful views of Mount Ajo after your climb. You also aren’t far from the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, Saguaro National Park, Coronado National Memorial, and Casa Grande Ruins National Monument—ideal for a National Park filled getaway.

The upper cliff dwelling at Tonto National Monument in Arizona at sunset.

In Arizona, Tonto National Monument is a good place to learn more about Native American history.

Courtesy of NPS Photo / C. Sadler

Tonto National Monument

  • Why go: To learn about the Indigenous communities who lived in the area 700 years ago.
  • Nearest city to Tonto National Monument: Globe, Arizona. It’s also a two-hour drive from Phoenix, Arizona.
  • Where to stay when visiting Tonto National Monument: As mentioned above, give the Royal Palms Resort and Spa in Phoenix or the Phoenician in Scottsdale a try.

Seven centuries ago, the area we currently call Tonto National Monument was a blend of neighboring Native American communities: the White Mountain, Chiricahua, and Tonto Apaches, Yavapais, and Pima-Maricopas tribes. Today, you can see two prehistoric cave dwellings (called the Lower Cliff Dwelling and the Upper Cliff Dwelling) and many artifacts from those who originally lived there. Pottery, textiles, and architecture from local tribes and those passing through have been dated between 1250 and 1450 C.E. There’s no official proof that this was a trading post, but the artifacts do give a memorable look at the people and cultures that lived in this desert region.

Keep in mind that the Upper Cliff Dwelling Trail is only accessible by guided tours, offered from November through April. These tours are limited to help control foot traffic, so you must make a reservation by calling 928-467-2241. The Lower Cliff Dwelling Trail is open every day from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. It’s best to visit this area early on a weekday so you don’t run into any congestion—the trail often hits capacity, resulting in wait times.

This article was originally published in 2019 and was updated in June 2023 with additional information. Erika Owens contributed to the reporting of this story.

Melanie Haiken is a San Francisco–based writer.
From Our Partners
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
More From AFAR